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Family tradition: Rosanne Cash at the plaza. Photo: Martin Benjamin

Americana Dream
By Erik Hage

Rosanne Cash, Hayseed
Empire State Plaza, Aug. 27

The final concert event of the season at the Empire State Plaza last Wednesday was just dead right. It was simply a matter of all the elements aligning themselves perfectly: a gorgeous summer eve, two sterling performances, an enthusiastic crowd and Mars hanging low in the sky, giving the monolithic wilderness of the plaza an even more surreal aspect. Those final days of summer can often feel like a week of Sundays (“trudging slowly over wet sand,” et cetera, as Morrissey would have it); Rosanne Cash and her outstanding band, along with our own Hayseed, brought the season to an appropriately rousing end, with folks putting their wistfulness for the season’s passing in the backseat and throwing themselves into one last rollicking Americana party in the plaza. (What a night: Sunday Morning Coming Down host Jeff Burger even reached into his innocuous square duffel and presented me an unsolicited beer during the Seed’s set. I had to check my driver’s license to make sure it wasn’t my birthday.)

Fans might have been surprised at the utter lack of Nashville trappings and influence in Cash’s set. She’s never quite fit the “country” designation, and recent years have seen her steering even more firmly into pop-tinged Americana. Cash opened the set—all aglow, earthy and youthful—with the comforting easy roll of “44 Stories,” from her most recent album, Rules of Travel. Her bandmates were more downtown-NYC boho chic than country, led by her husband John Leventhal, whose guitar playing was one of the outright victories of the evening. Leventhal is one of those rare players who has it right: perfect tone, economy and a feel for the emotional heart of the song (rather than empty virtuosity or histrionics). Teddy Thompson, son of British folk legends Richard and Linda Thompson, was also on hand, adding acoustic guitar and some unobtrusively full and rounded harmonies, particularly on “Rules of Travel” and “Three Steps Down,” that recalled his mom’s early work.

Cash has avoided the plaintive, new-agey resonance of a lot of her boomer “adult alternative” peers (Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith) through a life lived in NYC intellectual circles and such outlets as book and magazine writing (one of her articles recently ended up in the Best of the Oxford American: Ten Years From the Southern Magazine of Good Writing). She’s poised, intelligent, and deep as hell. And when a beer-sodden reveler shouted, “You rule!” at her during a lull, Cash didn’t skip a beat, wryly and coolly shooting back, “I wish. Things’d be a hell of a lot different if I did.” (Is your notebook out, Natalie Maines? It should be.)

Cash’s set took into account a good portion of her career, including her run of hits during country music’s “great credibility scare” of the ’80s and the intensely personal, darkly layered terrain of her self-produced Interiors (1990), which first presented her as a formidable songwriter. “What We Really Want,” from the latter, was downright stirringly sensational.

Like a lot of my favorite artists (Pete Townshend, Jeff Tweedy, Television), Cash has a thorny, earthbound complexity that makes her difficult to encapsulate or pin down. She just seems human up there—brainy, brilliantly flawed and full of life. (Reveler: “I love you, Rosanne!” Rosanne: “You don’t really know me . . . I can be difficult.”)

Hayseed and his recently assembled cast of players gave Cash a more-than-worthy opener, blasting out of the gates with three of the best tunes from Hayseed’s lost 1998 classic Melic, “Cold Feet,” “Wild Horses” (not that one) and “Between the Lines.” His band included the Coal Palace Kings’ bassist Jeff Sohn, nationally renowned multi-instrumentalist Kevin Maul on dobro, Red Beaumont on guitar and drummer Dale Haskell, who was rock-steady on the kit, and in fine voice on backup vocals. Those unfamiliar with Hayseed may not only be surprised at the sheer power of his singing but his versatility as well. His torchy belting on the steamy and swinging “Why Do I Feel So Guilty?” would’ve brought the house down if there had been a roof over his head. It’s a sheer pleasure to call him one of ours, and it was great that more area music fans finally got a chance to see him do his thing. But when he encouraged the crowd to turn the place into “Nashville North” for the eve, this writer had to think, no, let’s just keep it Albany . . . another late-summer memory in brilliantly flawed, weird and wonderful Albany.

That ’70s Show

Steely Dan
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 29

Has there ever been a more consistently sarcastic pop duo than Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker? They started out in the early ’70s as refreshingly cynical, and then settled into a worldview that was delicious in its ironic detachment. Like a couple of bad-boy audiophiles, their immaculately constructed music reflected 1970s amorality: Their songbook is packed with tunes about dope, sleazy sex and violence. (They performed three prime examples of each at SPAC, with “Time out of Mind,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” representing, respectively, each pleasurable sin.)

Steely Dan’s jazz-inflected rock, with its layered sounds scavenged from big band, bebop and cool, can be lush or spare, often depending on how nasty or nice the lyrics are. They started out nice on Friday night, with a swirling, jammy version of “Aja.” As ever, it’s hard to tell if they’re playing it straight—I still can’t decide, after all these years, if the song’s Asian-style chimes and percussion are supposed to be a joke—but they’re deadly serious, as usual, about the musical performance. This epic 10-plus minutes of precise rhythms and expansive soloing set the tone for the rest of the evening. Oh, and the show was all Steely Dan: There was no opening act, and the band played two sets with a brief intermission.

Leaning heavily on their jazzier material, Becker (on guitar) and Fagen (on various keys and harmonium) led the eight-piece band and a trio of backup singers on the mystical “Home at Last” and funky “Black Cow,” while keeping it tight on the pop faves “Peg” and “Josie.” (The band included saxman Cornelius Bumpus, certainly the only musician to have been in the Doobie Brothers before joining Steely Dan—back in the day, it always went the other way.) The bop homage “Parker’s Band” was terrific, and let the backup singers take over the lead from Fagen.

Fagen was in good voice, but gave himself a break by letting Becker sing lead on a few songs. This was not the greatest idea—Becker gets extra points for trying, but he murdered an otherwise superb version of “Haitian Divorce,” a song that really needs Fagan’s vocal sarcasm.

As the evening went on, the band upped the intensity. If the first half was more jazz, the second was, well, more rock. “Kid Charlemagne”—which, more than any of their songs, drives a stake through the bleeding heart of the hippy-dippy ’60s—was the flat-out highlight of the show, with blistering guitar work by Becker and John Harrington. The two also did their best with Steely Dan’s most exuberant rocker, “My Old School” (which, for Becker and Fagen, was Bard). “My Old School” was also the only number that made optimum use of the continual video projection on the tall, narrow screen behind the band.

These two old bastards are keeping the flame of ’70s ennui and alienation burning bright. It’s heartening.

—Shawn Stone

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